Breast Cancer: Then and Now
Posted at: 10/20/2013 10:00 PM
| Updated at: 10/20/2013 10:32 PM
Terry Berg first came face to face with breast cancer 20 years ago at age 50. It was hard to swallow the news because she says most people though of it as a death sentence. Her family was beside themselves, she said.
"It was extremely devastating to get the diagnosis at that time because we didn't know much about breast cancer then," Berg said.
However, she fought and she survived. In fact, Berg was cancer-free for 17 years until she started to feel excruciating pain in her back.
"It ended up being the same breast cancer that came back in one of my vertebra in my neck," Berg said.
Now, at age 70, Terry's cancer is back for a third time. While it hasn't been an easy road, her family has been by her side through it all. She says having her husband Bill along with her to doctors appointment was the extra support she's depended on through the years.
"I've been very fortunate, I have a spouse that has been very concerned and he will go with me to all of my oncology visits," Berg said. "Because many times your in a frame of mind that you're kind of frightened, really frightened, and to have somebody else hear what the treatment options are, it's really important."
Sometimes, however, she says you need perspective from someone who knows what you're going through. Even after 20 years and this third time around there is a lot of information to process and doing that with someone else helps.
Many cancer patients feel the need to put on a brave front for their families, so they keep their true fears and worries to themselves. However, getting those emotions out is a big part of the healing process, Berg said.
That is why Berg started a support group in Grand Rapids. She and a friend were both going through cancer at the same time and decided they needed a place to let go.
"We can cry and fall apart if we want to and that's okay, but you wouldn't want to do that with your family because that frightens them more and you're trying to be really strong," Berg said.
Berg co-facilitated the breast cancer support group in Grand Rapids for seventeen years, but after her cancer returned she moved to Duluth. That's where she met Tina Roberts, a medial social worker leading the support group at St. Luke's Cancer Center.
"Terry is one of those people," Roberts said. "She has the ability to reach out to people."
Roberts works with cancer patients to facilitate support groups and help them through their battle against cancer. Many women feel isolated and scared when they first get the diagnosis, but one of the blessings of a support group is that it connects patients and survivors. That way people can share advice and information from personal experience.
"When you're diagnosed with cancer, a lot of times you don't want to talk about how scared you are or how isolated you feel," Roberts said. "so, in a support group you have the opportunity to talk and share how you feel and not be concerned about effecting the people that you love."
Some survivors continue to go to group for years after remission, just because of the connections they make in group, Roberts said.
"It's kind of amazing, because you walk into the group wit a bunch of strangers and sometimes these people develop such strong relationships," she said. "What it does is gives them to, not only make connections with people going through the same thing. They also get a lot of valuable information."
The other added bonus of a support group, the feeling of control. Roberts says many women feel that going to group gives them the feeling that they're being proactive and doing something positive in the face of cancer.
Breast cancer has been a big part of Berg's life for about two decades and she's seen drastic changes in treatment and medications. She says that patients don't get as sick from medications as they used to, radiation treatments aren't as harsh and the list goes on and on. "In 20 years, it's unbelievable," she said.
Dr. Anne Silva-Benedict is an oncologist at St. Luke's who says that even in the last ten years treatments have come a long way. Although there have been huge advancements, she says breast cancer is still a very real disease to look out for.
"Breast cancer is the most common cancer in women," Silva-Benedict said. "it's second only to lung cancer in terms of mortality and one out of eight women can develop breast cancer over a lifetime."
Both Dr. Silva-Benedict and Berg associate these huge advancements in beast cancer technology to the growth of support through breast cancer awareness. "I think it's been incredibly important," Berg said. "I think it's one of the reasons why we're so far ahead with breast cancer as opposed to say, prostate cancer and colon cancer."
The money raised through walks, campaigns and fundraisers has made a world of difference in the past two decades, Berg said.
Part of that raised awareness has really put to pressure on for women to be proactive about their health. Yearly mammograms, monthly self breast exams and clinical exams have become part of everyday life for women and that leads to an increase in early detection, which can be a life-saver.
"Early stage breast cancer is curable and it's not a death sentence," Silva-Benedict said.
In fact, it was early detection that made Berg's survival possible 20 years ago. A mammogram caught her cancer early, but like many women who develop breast cancer, Berg says she didn't show any risk factors. She had done everything she was supposed to. She wasn't heavy, she stayed active, had her kids at the right time, breast fed and did not have much cancer in her family. So, when she was diagnosed, she was very surprised.
"It was shocking," she said. "So I say to women, don't look at the risk factors, look at yourself."
Silva-Benedict says knowing your risk factors is important, but knowing your individual body can be just as, if not more, important. "It's very important for them (women) to know to find changes early, because sometimes the mammograms can miss, 20 percent of the time."
Silva-Benedict says that a history of breast cancer in your family is a big risk factor, but most types of breast cancer are sporadic, not hereditary. About 75-80 percent of breast cancers are sporadic, she said. That's why self breast exams and yearly clinical exams are very important.
Women as young as 20-years-old should start practicing self breast exams, Silva-Benedict said. "women are the best to know their breasts and be aware of any changes," she said.
Some things to be aware of are asymmetry in one breast versus the other. Look our for skin changes overlying the breast and, of course, changing lumps or bumps. Silva-Benedict says that breast cancer is curable, but you have to catch it early and being aware of your breasts and following recommended screening is the best way to do that.
St. Luke's recommends that women start yearly mammograms after age 40, according to Dr. Silva Benedict. She says women should do self exams once a month and clinical exams once a year.